Dr Brian Johnson became quickly and intimately acquainted with his engine’s silencer when it threatened to sink his Westerly Pageant.
We keep our Westerly Pageant Dayspring II in Lyme Regis harbour, enjoying day sails with occasional local cruises.
Last year we decided to cross the bay to spend some time in Torbay, having heard good things about Torquay harbour.
Heading south-west from Lyme often means motorsailing, and the beautiful late summer day we chose was no exception.
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We all know that effective bilge pumping arrangements are essential for safety at sea, yet a surprising number of boats…
The trusty Beta 14 was fired up and running perfectly, the sails were raised as a gesture to our status as a sailing boat, and we were off in the sparkling sunshine headed into a Force 4 south-west across the bay.
Mid-morning saw us just off Sidmouth, happily munching biscuits and fruit in the cockpit when Caroline said: “What’s that high-pitched squealing noise?”
Sure enough, an alarm was sounding, so we looked over the stern to see that water was still coming out of the exhaust, but there didn’t seem to be as much as usual.
The exhaust note had also changed, making what could only be described as a squishing sound. Impeller problem perhaps?
I immediately started down the companionway to find to my horror a couple of inches of water above the carpet!
That sinking feeling
“What’s wrong?” she cried!
“We are sinking,” says I, not wishing to alarm her!
The squeal was not, as I first thought, the high temperature alarm but the high water sensor in the bilge, so I shut off the engine, switched on the electric bilge pump, asked Caroline to start pumping using the manual pump, and began a rapid tour of the seacocks and transducer fittings armed with wooden plugs!
To my relief, there was nothing amiss there, but on peering into the engine compartment I saw water coming from the stern locker, running downwards into the bilge.
After 20 minutes pumping with the engine off most of the water was gone, leaving a very soggy carpet in the saloon, together with two bags of fruit and cereals that had also tasted the sea.
No more water was coming in so we hove to, sat down and thought things through. No leaks through the hull – so where was the water coming from?
We started the engine and water was again coming into the bilge so it must be cooling water – yes it was slightly warm!
A good look over the engine showed no leaks there, but the stern locker was truly awash.
Chasing the leak
On with the head torch and ‘bingo!’ – there it was! The exhaust silencer, a weird rubber thing tightly tucked up under the locker top on the starboard side, was spitting lots of water and looked as though it had swollen.
“Right,” says I, “off with the engine, and I’ll drag it out”.
Easier said than done in a bouncy sea – undoing the clips involved the usual contortions and needed the usual three hands – but finally I managed to haul it into the sunshine.
It had an Elastomuffle brand name on it, and had split around the waist seam – but why had it looked swollen?
Poking about inside the beast revealed a lump of hard rubber that looked as though it might once been a one-way valve.
It had come loose and partially blocked the outlet; the excess pressure popped the seam that dumped most of our cooling water into the locker.
Needless to say I extracted the lump from its rubbery trap, hopefully giving the cooling water a free passage back into the sea where it belonged.
Fortunately I always keep lots of tools and repair stuff on the boat, including a large roll of self-amalgamating tape.
Four turns around the periphery of the silencer closed the split seam and for good measure I also laced it over with cord.
Putting the whole bodge back into the locker involved some colourful language but we got there in the end.
Starting the engine revealed an occasional drip but nothing serious.
Should we continue across the bay?
We decide not, so with a fair wind sailed to West Bay enjoying a lovely couple of days there on the pontoons drying out the boat, eating too many fish and chips, and meeting the Manning family on their beautifully restored historic Cornish lugger Our Lizzie, 100 years old almost to the day.
Without our exploding exhaust we would never have seen her and been invited aboard for coffee!
We did make it across the bay a couple of weeks after I’d fitted the new exhaust, and can thoroughly recommend Torquay harbour for a comfortable and friendly stay!
The facilities are very good and there is lots to explore and enjoy in and around Torbay.
We even saw a couple of dolphins playing with an inflatable dinosaur beach toy on our way back to Lyme!
1 Fit a high water alarm in the bilge – it’s cheap and easy to do! This is important because if you’re voyaging on a sunny day, eating prepared food and enjoying the view, you may not look below for several hours, even though you know you should.
2 Consider fitting a different alarm sounder to each of your sensors – so you can quickly identify which one has been triggered.
3 If water rises start pumping right away, using every pump and bucket you have! Try to use logic over panic (not easy when you are sinking).
Check all through-hull fittings. If they are OK, find where the water is coming from. Is it freshwater or salty? Tasting it will tell you. If it’s fresh then your water tank or fittings may have sprung a leak.
There can be a surprising amount of water in a tank – sometimes enough to fill shallow bilges. In our case it was salt water so with all through hull fittings intact it had to be coming from either the stern gland (unlikely given the volume of water) or from the cooling water.
Switching off the engine turned out to be a good move as we immediately started gaining on the water, so it had to be coming from the cooling system.
4 Thoroughly check your exhaust system, especially if the boat is new to you.
If you find one of the dreaded Elastomuffle rubber silencers in your exhaust system, pull it out and bin it! They were last made in North America over 15 years ago and are well past their useful life (if they ever had one!).
A quick look around the internet showed that splitting is common, in some cases almost sinking boats! We have now fitted an excellent Vetus waterlock – the smallest upright one can just be squeezed into a Westerly Pageant alongside the shaft coupling. Our new exhaust system is now leak-free and sounds much nicer!
5 Don’t leave bags of food on the floor! Salty muesli from a soggy box doesn’t make for a good holiday breakfast!
6 Should we have called the coastguard with a Pan Pan? Perhaps – but that would have wasted precious pumping and inspection time and we were not in immediate danger.
By the time I’d found the leak, we’d pumped out most of the water and could safely sail home without making demands on rescue services – phew!
7 Lastly, always have a plan B, preferably a plan C as well. We could have continued to Torbay but rightly decided that the risk of the bodge failing was too much.
We took advantage of a following wind to sail for West Bay where we enjoyed the rest of our weekend on the boat, not far from our home port.
About the author
Dr Brian Johnson has been boating for most of his life since sailing an RNSA clinker-built dinghy with his brother as teenagers on the Medway Estuary. He now sails the Westerly Pageant Dayspring II with his wife, Caroline Rigby, mainly within Lyme Bay.
They have another ‘cult’ boat, a Seahawk 17 trailer-sailer that is seen most summers on the Camel estuary in Cornwall. Brian is a retired geneticist who worked for the government conservation agencies for many years. He is a keen angler who enjoys marine wildlife, some of it on a plate!
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